The Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Trail uses a 20-mile section of the former Illinois Terminal (IT), which hugs the shores of the Mississippi River between Alton and Grafton, Illinois. The IT grew into one of the largest and most successful interurbans of all time thanks largely to the prolific volume of freight it was able to amass. In many ways this tractions system became what most others had always dreamed, with a network spanning several hundred miles across the Prairie State and reaching such cities as Peoria, Decatur, Champaign, and St. Louis. The trail follows a stretch that fell victim to early abandonment in the 1950s. Aside from its size and success, the IT was a typical interurban, operated electrically, until diesels took over in the 1950s. During the early 1980s, the IT was acquired by Norfolk & Western, closing the books on this fascinating operation.

The Illinois Terminal’s history was fairly typical of most interurbans, which began as small streetcar systems and were later purchased by William B. McKinley at the turn of the 20th century. Serving such towns as Danville, Urbana, and Champaign, his properties were folded into the newly incorporated Illinois Traction Company (ITS) in 1904. His plan was to eventually grow his empire across Illinois, connecting much of the state, as well as St. Louis and Chicago. Soon, service was opened to Decatur, where a line split north reaching Bloomington in 1906 and west to Springfield in 1904. In 1907, a gap between Decatur and Champaign was filled, while at the same time construction to St. Louis was underway. Direct access into St. Louis was not achieved until November 10, 1910, when a new bridge across the Mississippi River opened.

McKinley’s ever-expanding interurban was setting its sights north of Springfield toward Chicago, reaching Lincoln in 1906 and soon after, Peoria. Unfortunately, the dream of direct service into the Windy City fell short by the coming of the Great Depression. The ITS had been well on its way toward this goal, however, through subsidiary Chicago, Ottawa & Peoria, which linked Joliet, Ottawa, Streator, and Princeton. The stock market crash ended further expansion. During the 1920s, many changes came to the ITS, predominantly corporate-related. Control of the railroad fell under Illinois Traction, Inc., a subsidiary of Illinois Power & Light, but also through additional growth concentrated around the St. Louis area. These new terminal lines were primarily located east and north of St. Louis and included the St. Louis & Alton; East St. Louis & Suburban; St. Louis, Troy & Eastern; and the Alton & Eastern. The latter two were traditional non-electrified operations. Towns served along these routes included Granite City, Edwardsville, Alton, and Grafton.

In 1928, another acquisition was the original Illinois Terminal Company (ITC), incorporated in 1895 to function as a terminal system around Alton and serve local industries along the east bank of the Mississippi. At its peak, the ITC reached Edwardsville, Alton, and as far west as Grafton. Its western segment between Alton and Grafton (about 20 miles) is the Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Trail. In an effort to streamline operations the Illinois Terminal name was kept for the entire interurban during a 1928 corporate consolidation, when smaller subsidiaries merged into the Illinois Terminal Railroad(IT). By this time, McKinley’s interest had waned; he was now eying the political arena, and the IT would eventually find itself under control of the North American Company. As the Great Depression took hold, the only additional growth was to construct belt lines around towns such as Decatur, Springfield, Champaign (via the Illinois Central), Urbana, and Edwardsville to avoid circuitous and slow street running operations. At its peak, the IT spanned some 555 miles, according to George Hilton and John Due’s authoritative book “The Electric Interurban Railways In America.”

During both the Illinois Traction and later Illinois Terminal era, the interurban worked hard to develop its carload freight business, particularly during the 1920s—and much to the chagrin of surrounding railroads. This traffic was quite diversified, ranging from coal to petroleum products and general agriculture. During its electrified years, the IT relied on a mix of steeple and box-cab motors to move freight, the most powerful of which were the home-built Class D’s that could produce some 1,750 horsepower! They pulled so much current, the locomotives needed two trolley poles. The system operated via overhead catenary, typical of interurbans, and used a 600-volt direct-current (DC) system. The northern lines at first used alternating current but later switched to more traditional direct current. Passenger service was also of standard practice except on a larger scale, given the IT’s size, with hourly service as well as a few limiteds and locals.

Somewhat uncommon among most interurbans, the IT fielded a long list of named trains: the “Illini,” “Owl,” and “Peoria Flyer” among them. The road also saw passenger traffic remain relatively strong for several years since its routes did not directly compete with the railroads. As time passed and patronage slipped, the company purchased its first lightweight equipment in 1948, acquiring eight aluminum-sheathed cars in three sets to off-set the growing losses. These attractive streamliners—sporting a blue and silver livery—were built by the St. Louis Car Company and named the “City of Decatur,” “Mound City,” and “Fort Crevecoeur.” They were the last new interurban cars ever manufactured and meant to sustain or regain ridership, although such efforts, as nearly all railroads came to realize, proved futile.

It was clear by the 1950s that the Illinois Terminal’s future would be in the movement of freight, with gross revenues more than 18 times that of passenger earnings. Passenger movement continued to slip after World War II. During 1953, the first major cutbacks occurred when the road abandoned most of its route between Decatur and Bloomington that February. On March 7 that year, it ended service between Grafton and Alton. Following this move, the Illinois Terminal worked quickly to end all remaining passenger services, granted in 1954. Most such trains were terminated by 1956 while a few local streetcar operations survived until 1958. This brought an end to all electrified service on the IT; freight trains had already been replaced with diesels. In 1956, the road was sold to a consortium of 11 major railroads in the St. Louis area and was later wholly acquired by the Norfolk & Western in 1981. The latter formally merged it into its system during the spring of 1982.

Illinois is currently home to several museums and excursion trains, including the Amboy Depot Museum in Amboy; Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum in Elizabeth; the Depot Railroad Museum in Rossville; the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin; the Galesburg Railroad Museum in Galesburg; the Historic Greenup Depot in Greenup; the Illinois Railway Museum in Union (one of the largest in the country); the Kankakee Railroad Museum in Kankakee; the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello; the Silver Creek & Stephenson Railroad in Freeport; and the Union Depot Railroad Museum in Mendota. In nearby St. Louis you can visit the Museum of Transportation.